Happy New Year 2024

Whatever you call it, Invasion Day, Survival Day, or Australia Day and instead of getting out and about amongst the crazy hot celebrations and commemorations, I regularly choose to take stock of my annual experience of Sydney Festival. This year was no different.

What was different was the volume of experiences I signed up for as, like everything else, the cost of attending events at Sydney Festival were markedly up this year. Inversely my attendance was down. The cheapest entry to ticketed events, not counting the dance workshops, after booking surcharges, was approximately sixty bucks. Whatever happened to the ‘about an hour’ program which made some of the events more affordable? And before I receive any backlash from people who beg to differ, yes I will concede that there were a range of free events on offer, including Sue Healey’s film Icons On View featuring six female legends of Australian dance. Icons on View was a standout experience for me, paid or otherwise, so much so I will dedicate a great deal of attention to it in my second promised blog of the New Year.

Oh yeah, Happy New Year and welcome back to the FORM Dance Projects fold. Now brace yourself because this blog is hefty to say the least.

The first work I attended in 2024 was titled Encantado and its sheer brilliance was very fittingly presented in the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House. Because it was brilliant, from the painstaking unfurling of blankets which were so ingeniously prepared beforehand that at first their colourful dimensions seemed like a singular patchwork quilt, before the dancers activated each separate piece of cloth, to the last feverish dance which saw the performers depart leaving us with the splendour of their disheveled textile canvas.

In the day bill Encantado is purported to mean ‘an object of enchantment or magical spell’, more specifically according to African Brazilian lore encantados are animations of the natural world by unknown forces. This concept was realised through movement scores that felt very spontaneous, almost haphazardly assembled, however, as the show progressed I realised how tight each successive image was actually constructed. The pace gently accelerated from the protracted opening as bare bodies made the blankets undulate from underneath before they were fashioned into intricate adornments. Amongst them a male dancer framing his distended belly with a blanket morphed into a heavily pregnant woman, whilst a female dancer became the embodiment of pure energy as she feverishly crumped in the equivalent of a blanket loincloth, and yet another dancer became a snake charmer holding his serpent by its head as the rest of its twisted blanket body curled around his torso.

The dance language employed to bring life to the blankets was a mix of unbridled African derived physicalities and western classical lineages. The dance was passed from performer to performer, being taken up and constantly embellished, improved upon, and manipulated through successive gestural and rhythmic alterations. The entire show was accompanied by one constant soundtrack which mirrored the movement with constant changes in rhythm and melody.

The second event I attended was given to me courtesy of NAISDA Dance College as myself and another staff member grabbed the chance to see a dress run of Orpheus and Eurydice also presented at the Opera House. The last time I was in the Dame Joan Sutherland Theatre we were in lockdown and myself along with four other independent choreographers performed short solos under the banner Unwrapped, Dances for Now.

The hero shot for the promotional material for Orpheus and Eurydice was dominated by airborne dancers via harnesses. While not outright misleading, somehow the images didn’t accurately represent the breadth of movement on offer. However, I do have to concede the opening scene, featuring a solo performer continuously contorting from a single hand grip, as her line was ever so slowly lowered from the roof truss above, was breathtaking. So too was the interlude featuring a woman working the double stranded silks, as she navigated one line she manipulated the other to billow, emulating what I would regard in hindsight to be the watery depths of Hades. The strength of the embodied collaboration from Meanjin (Brisbane) based Circa director Yaron Lifschitz’s production lay in the elaborate choral style grouping as unfettered by harnesses, bodies flew horizontally upon upright standing partners, roving counterbalances against walls occurred and a myriad of static en masse compositions peppered the choreography.

My downfall was in reading the subtitles so closely, in wanting to know what words were being sung. In hindsight I wondered why I didn’t simply read the movement, as that is my lingua franca. Also, if I had’ve paid more attention to the singing, I would’ve appreciated the vocal virtuosity as much as the dancing spectacle.

As a relative novice to all things operatic I didn’t recognise any of the arias. Not like many of the Wagnerian pieces that are regularly used in automobile and beer advertisements. All the more reason to eschew my preoccupation with literal translation.

Other favourite takeaway moments included, watching the many ways each facet of Orpheus’s psyche assembled as characters under his bed, seeing how many people could fit into the gilded cage contraption which held Eurydice captive, the appearance (if not quite the content) of the subtitles materialising on the white back wall as if they too were dancing. The deep red of Libby McDonnell costuming evoking blood, passion and power in tandem with Lifschitz’s bold yet minimalist set, which heightened, maybe even slightly eclipsing, the emotion on stage.

If I now bypass Icons On View, the next two choreographies I witnessed, were Ghenoa Gela’s Gurr Era Op in association with Force Majeure and in partnership with Ilbijerri Theatre and Marrigeku’s Mutiara co-produced with Bahri and Co. I don’t mean to arbitrarily lump the two Australian Indigenous works together but there is much they had in common besides the self- determined sharing of first people’s narratives. For Mutiara, it was of the complex cultural history between the Malay and the Indigenous communities in Broome, while Gela’s Gurr Era Op was centred around the urgent need for cultural expression against the king tides threatening the existence of her ancestral homelands, due to climate change.

Gela’s set, designed by Katy Moir, was busily composed of fishing paraphernalia, primarily nets and baskets, which gave the appearance of being made from reclaimed materials, alluding to the great work done by the growing alumni of ghost net collectives, which find creative repurposing for the ocean waste. Piled high at first the colorful baskets resembled the island topography of the Torres Strait. As the piece unfolded the baskets were utilised as they are in daily life activities. Lastly the woven shapes were used to tightly construct the sea walls which are becoming necessary landmarks to stem the rising sea level.

Abdul-Rahman Abdullah’s set for Mutiara was comparatively sparse although equally versatile. It consisted of a pearl shell mound, which was used to locate the dead in Broome’s famous cemetery, to the ancestral forces that guide the community.  A roving instillation of ropes which hung from the rafters, was utilised as a projection surface. Beginning as a quadrangular clump the ropes were drawn, expanding as a curtain, whereby backlighting enhanced the verticality which was evocative of the watery depths the sea pearlers regularly navigated in the collection of the shiny bounty of which Broomeis still renowned.

Both Gela and her cast and the collaborative efforts of Soultari Amin Farid, Dalisa Pigram, Zee Zunnur and Ahmat Bin Fadal in Mutiara deployed dance vocabularies that compete with the western contemporary counterparts of which Ghenoa Gela and Dalisa Pilgrim have always been two of my favourite executioners. I am always excited by Gela’s Torres Strait Island Style, her ability to accent each movement cadence with an extra flick of the head, or sharp angle of the elbow or shift in the hip when transitioning from mark-time preambles or in preparation to a kub kar jump is unparalleled. That is not to say that her co-starring ensemble in Ahba Bero, Taryn Beatty and Berthalia Reuben don’t give her a run for her money in this production. The same drop in weight, in space, as the hips down movement of TSI dance, was also deployed in Mutiara and is what made the movement so satisfying to watch. In Mutiara this shift was magnified tenfold and I found myself replicating this action in my seat. For Gurr Era Op the shifts in space were used to emphasize the feeling of urgency and instability whilst in Mutiara the downward accent bound us inexorably to the sea bed.

In conversation afterward it was conveyed to me from an audience member that she was aware that on both occasions there was a lot of information embedded in both works that wasn’t meant for the general public. As a scholar and dancer herself she was reconciled to the fact that these two dances were vital historical repositories as much as gifts of entertainment.

My last interaction with Sydney Festival was in the guise of a double bill from Swedish Göteborgsoperans Danskompani, which featured Damien Jalet’s Skid and SAABA by Sharon Eyal. A decent offering with two distinct works highlighting the ensemble’s versatility.

Jalet is renowned for his large-scale interdisciplinary choreographic endeavours and this one was no exception. In Skid Jalet has his dancers navigate the topography of what could only be described as an oversized slant board. They do it so well that I don’t feel fear for them, as was intended, as much as pure exhaustion. I have danced on old fashioned raked stages back when seating banks were little more than an assemblage of individual chairs which could be hastily stacked in the corner of a room to make way for some other community event and even then it felt as if I was executing some uphill ski event. This was taking my experience to a whole different level. The various danced interactions were so deftly executed that after a while I felt as if I were watching the tiny plastic gems moving within a kaleidoscope.  I began to let the show wash over me, with eyes glazing in and out of focus I began to meditate.

Sharon Eyal’s SAABA was another gem altogether. I was captivated from the off kilter torso manipulations of the male solo in the opening until the last unresolved enchainment from the entire ensemble. This is what European en masse pageantry seems to do so well. I could immediately recognise Eyal’s performative lineage, specifically of her past life with Batsheva. Like another Batsheva alumni Hofesh Shechter, it was in the presentation of an idiosyncratic language which melded folk or social dancing with the mainstay elements of classical ballet that somehow took it in a satisfyingly alien direction, particularly in Eyal’s choice to place the dancers high on their toes for the entire duration. Again I found myself subconsciously massaging my calves in empathy.

As I rode my bike away from the venue afterward I wondered why it is that most of the mainstream contemporary dance companies here in Australia have not been able to eschew the fuddy-duddy-ness of the Eurocentrice dance lines of the court quite yet. Yeah sure we have a penchant to mix it up with hip hop cultures, with interludes of break dancing and such, but why is it that we are all still so preoccupied with high legs et all? For this I was ever so grateful that Eyal’s work was presented in this year’s Sydney Festival lineup.

Phew after that Herculaneum unpacking I think it’s best I wait a week for the promised second first blog of the year.

Vicki Van Hout
FORM Dance Projects
Blogger in Residence